SOUTH PORTLAND—What a difference a month makes.
South Portland’s football team was drubbed by powerhouse Thornton Academy in the season opener and it looked as if the Red Riots would be a non-factor this fall, but with just three weeks to go in the regular season, South Portland finds itself on the short list of the best teams in Class A.
Friday evening at Martin Memorial Field, the Red Riots were embroiled in a gut-check situation and found a way to survive.
Hosting Sanford, the team that crushed its playoff hopes a year ago, South Portland had to scratch and claw for every one of the 48 minutes, but in the end, the Red Riots earned their fourth win in a row.
South Portland took a quick 7-0 lead on a touchdown run from senior Matthew Stearns, but the Spartans rallied within one by first quarter’s end and when they cashed in on good field position late in the second period, they had a 12-7 advantage at the break.
The second half would feature a see-saw ride of epic proportions.
After a short touchdown run from senior Jaren Muller gave the Red Riots the lead, Sanford answered with a big play to go up, 19-15, with 12 minutes to play.
In the fourth quarter, junior quarterback Nick Mezzanotte hit Muller on a fourth down for a score, but again, the Spartans answered immediately and with time running out, South Portland was down, 25-22.
The Red Riots simply wouldn’t be denied, however, as with 4:15 to play, Stearns scored on a 6-yard run to put his team ahead to stay, 29-25.
South Portland’s defense, behind an interception from senior Hayden Owen and a last second stop on a Hail Mary pass, slammed the door and survived to improve to 4-1, as they dropped Sanford to 2-3 in the process.
“It was a great game,” said Red Riots coach Steve Stinson. “It was two good high school football teams playing a good high school football game tonight. This was a typical South Portland-Sanford game. We get up for each other. We’ve had some battles with them.”
Hitting their stride
South Portland, after a trip to the playoffs in 2013, wasn’t viewed as a top contender this fall (due largely to graduation) and after falling at preseason favorite Thornton Academy, 47-6, in the opener, that outlook appeared on target.
Then, Bonny Eagle came to Martin Memorial Stadium Sept. 12 and the Red Riots’ season turned around thanks to a 21-14 victory. South Portland then won at Massabesic (20-6) and Noble (61-14).
Sanford, which got to the semifinals in 2013 and lost to Thornton Academy, began its season with a 29-14 win at Scarborough and a 28-19 home triumph over Oxford Hills. After being humbled at Bonny Eagle (60-12), the Spartans lost again by a lopsided margin, 48-7, to Thornton Academy, last weekend.
The teams have met fairly regularly this century and have squared off in two of the past there postseasons (South Portland won the 2011 Western A quarterfinal, 33-13).
Sanford won the game that mattered most a year ago and came to South Portland looking to knock off the Red Riots again, but South Portland wasn’t about to miss a chance to avenge last November’s heartbreak, even if it literally came down to the wire.
The Red Riots won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half and that paid immediate dividends when the Spartans fumbled on their third snap and South Portland junior Noah Blake pounced on the loose football at the Sanford 31.
Four plays later, the Red Riots drew first blood.
After Mezzanotte hit Owen for 19 yards on the first play, Owen ran for no gain and Muller picked up seven on a rush. The ball then went to Stearns, who bulled his way in from the 5. Mezzanotte added the point after kick and South Portland had a 7-0 lead just 2 minutes, 43 seconds in.
While the Red Riots won with ease the past couple weeks, this time, their opponent answered.
Sanford would march 73 yards on nine plays, chewing up nearly four minutes to score its first touchdown.
A 12-yard pass from senior quarterback Chase Eldredge to senior Cody Marshall moved the chains. Eldredge then hit senior Peyton Wiegand for 28. Three plays later, on third-and-6, Eldredge dropped back to pass, rolled to his right and when he couldn’t find an open receiver, he cut back and ran to the left pylon, beating the pursuit, for a score. Junior Peter Hegarty’s PAT was blocked by Owen and South Portland clung to a 7-6 lead.
The Red Riots then marched into Spartans’ territory, as a 36-yard Mezzanotte-to-Owen pass play got them close, but on fourth-and-3 from the 19, Mezzanotte threw incomplete and Sanford took over on downs.
A nice 13-yard diving reception from senior Eddie Michetti gave the Spartans a first down, but the next three plays only gained two yards and the visitors had to punt.
As the first quarter gave way to the second, South Portland moved into Sanford territory on runs of 10-yards from Stearns and 18-yards from Muller, but the hosts stalled and on fourth-and-9 from the 22, Mezzanotte hit Blake for just six yards and the Spartans got the ball back.
Sanford quickly went three-and-out, but the Red Riots did the same and Muller’s ensuing punt was blocked by Spartans senior Nick Love and the visitors took over at South Portland’s 24.
A 12-yard Love scamper set up first-and-goal from the 7, but after Love was thrown for a one-yard loss and junior James Roche ran for five, Eldredge threw incomplete and on fourth-and-goal from the 8, Eldredge ran down the left sideline, but was pushed out at the 1, giving the Red Riots the ball on downs.
South Portland only gained nine yards on three plays and had to punt, giving Sanford the ball at the Red Riots’ 39 with 3:41 to go in the half.
The Spartans would again drive to the goal line, but this time, they’d capitalize and take a lead into the break.
An eight-yard run by Michetti moved the chains. A two-yard Love pickup on fourth-and-1 from the 18 was followed four plays later by a one-yard Michetti TD dive. Michetti was stopped short on the two-point conversion rush, but the Spartans had a 12-7 lead at halftime.
In the first 24 minutes, Sanford had a 157-128 edge in yardage.
In the second half, both teams had their moments, but South Portland managed just a bit more offense to tip the scale.
By virtue of their decision to defer at the start of the game, the Red Riots got the ball first in the second half and marched for a go-ahead TD.
Starting from the 27, Stearns ran for 14 yards on first down. Two plays later, Stearns, thanks to a terrific second effort, picked up 10 more yards. Three plays after that, on third-and-7 from the Spartans’ 44, Stearns broke free for 20. Mezzanotte then hit Muller for 11 yards to the 9. After Owen ran for five and Sanford jumped offsides, Muller bulled in from the 2. Mezzanotte then kept the ball and scored the two-point conversion for a 15-12 lead with 7:30 remaining in quarter number three.
While the hosts needed 4:26 to score, the Spartans needed just four plays and 1:28 to go back on top.
After Eldredge picked up a first down on a quarterback sneak, he handed off on a counter to Michetti and Michetti ran 53 yards to paydirt. Hegarty added the point-after and with 5:52 to go in the third quarter, Sanford was ahead, 19-15.
South Portland wasn’t able to respond, even though Stearns picked up one first down with a 14-yard scamper, breaking a pair of tackles in the process. On fourth-and-1 from the Spartans’ 48, Stinson called for the punt.
Sanford began from its 17 late in the third, but after Michetti ran for 11 yards and a first down, a holding penalty backed the Spartans up and they eventually had to punt.
With 1:15 to play in the third period, the Red Riots took over at their 37 and by the time the fourth quarter began, they were at the Sanford 41.
The drive stalled, however, and South Portland punted. Stinson’s call proved to be brilliant as Muller pinned the Spartans at their 1.
Sanford gained just five yards on three snaps and had to punt and a 14-yard return by Stearns set the Red Riots up at the Spartans’ 25.
An 11-yard Stearns run set up first-and-goal from the 9. Stearns ran for four-yards, then two. After an incomplete pass brought up fourth down, Mezzanotte rolled right and hit Muller, who wouldn’t be denied, and the 3-yard TD pass put the hosts back on top. With 7:20 to play, Mezzanotte kicked the point-after for a 22-19 lead.
It didn’t last.
After Michetti lost a yard on the first play of Sanford’s ensuing drive, Eldredge eluded a rusher and threw a seemingly innocent pass to Wiegand, but with several tacklers surrounding him, Wiegeand kept his legs moving, the whistle never blew and Wiegand broke free. With South Portland looking on stunned, Wiegand completed a 71-yard pass and catch. Hegarty’s extra point was no good, wide left, but with 6:15 remaining, Sanford had a 25-22 lead.
Again, the Red Riots rose off the deck.
Starting at its 37 with 6:13 to go, South Portland wound drive 63 yards on six plays in slightly less than two minutes.
A five-yard run by Owen moved the chains and put the ball at the Spartans’ 49. After Stearns ran for five, Owen, in the “Wildcat” formation, broke free for 38 yards to the 6. On the next snap, Stearns found paydirt and the Red Riots were ahead for good. Mezzanotte added the PAT and with 4:15 left on the clock, South Portland clung to a 29-25 advantage.
No one thought the lead was safe, however.
Sure enough, Sanford had a chance to answer when it took over at its 47 after a nice return, but after three plays gained eight yards, Eldredge threw incomplete. The visitors were bailed out, however, by a pass interference call, setting up a first-and-10 from the Red Riots’ 34. After Wiegand ran for five yards, the Spartans got cute and it cost them.
Eldredge handed the ball off to Hegarty, who rolled left, but instead of keeping the ball, he decided to throw it into triple coverage and Owen intercepted the ball.
“I just saw the ball,” Owen said. “I was being athletic and I just went and got it. Everyone likes getting an interception.”
With only 1:43 to play, South Portland took over at its 13, needing just one first down to end the contest.
It didn’t happen.
The Red Riots only gained three yards on three plays and with under a minute to go, were forced to punt.
Sanford got one final chance as it began at the South Portland 49 with 35.4 seconds showing.
After Eldredge threw incomplete, he missed his target again, but a late hit on the quarterback penalty resulted in a first down at the 34.
Eldredge scrambled for a yard, then, with time winding down, he spiked the ball to set up one final play.
As time ticked away, Eldredge launched a Hail Mary toward the Red Riots’ end zone. With several defenders in place, South Portland was in solid position to cap its victory, but the ball got beyond the defense and deflected off the left hand of junior Tye Laviolette, only to fall harmlessly to the turf and after two-and-a-half thrilling hours of football, the Red Riots had survived, 29-25.
“It was amazing,” Stearns said. “We live for these games, night games, Friday night, we love it. We never got discouraged. We knew we’d win it. The offensive line was great all day. We had good gaps. This is a revenge game for us. We lost to them last year on our home field and we wanted to correct it this year. We have team unity. We had to turn it around after TA and that’s what we did.”
“The defense really stepped up at the end,” Owen said. “We love the pressure. We’re playing good football right now. We’re getting better every day. It was close, but we came out with a huge win. I think we’re all doing great.”
“It was our prevent look that we practice once a week,” added Stinson. “We were pretty sound. That was (an assistant coach) Mike Bailey prevent. I told him, ‘If it lands in a receiver’s hands, you’re dead.’ I was thinking, ‘Can someone please swat it down so we can get out of here?’ All it takes a bounce.”
“I thought we showed some real character down the stretch. We overcame adversity. We knew we’d try to run the ball down their throats and they’d try to do the same to us. Both teams kept grinding. They’re very talented. They’re big and skilled. We addressed (last year), but we didn’t harp on it. It’s a brand new year. Last year’s kids are long gone. We have new guys stepping in. We have playmakers. We did different things with them. At TA, we had eight new starters on both sides. We changed things up against Bonny Eagle to allow our playmakers to touch the ball a little more. We had success. It rolled into the next week.”
Stearns finished up with 143 yards and two TDs on 23 carries.
“We said after last season ended that we were going to move Matthew to tailback to replace Joey DiBiase and that we’d give the ball to our toughest kid,” Stinson said. “He gets offended when he gets tackled. He makes a lot out of nothing. He runs hard.
Muller had 39 yards and a score on seven rushes. Mezzanotte completed 8-of-14 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. Owen caught three balls for 52 yards. Muller had three catches for 17 yards and a score.
South Portland produced 375 yards of offense. The Red Riots were penalized four times for 40 yards.
The Spartans were led by Michetti’s 83 yards and two scores on eight attempts. Love ran for 40 yards on 13 rushes. Hegarty picked up 36 yards on 10 attempts. Eldredge completed 5-of-15 passes for 129 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also ran for a score. Wiegand caught three balls for 104 yards and a TD.
Sanford had 333 yards of offense, but was hindered by five penalties for 27 yards.
Sanford (fifth in the Western A Crabtree Points standings) is back in action Friday, when it hosts Biddeford. A home tilt versus Noble and a trip to Massabesic closes its season.
South Portland (now third behind Thornton Academy and Bonny Eagle in Western A) has a legitimate shot at hosting at least one playoff game for the second year in a row. After hosting Scarborough Friday in a rematch of last year’s double-overtime, 58-57 instant classic, the Red Riots visit Biddeford, then close at rival Portland in the annual “Battle of the Bridge.”
South Portland knows there is still work to do.
“You don’t win games on Friday nights,” Owen said. “You win them Tuesday and Wednesdays in practice. We have to keep working hard.”
“If we don’t bring our best, we won’t get another win,” Stinson said. “Scarborough’s a well coached team. Biddeford’s very physical. Portland’s obviously very good. This league is fun this year.”
Sanford junior Peter Hegarty is surrounded by the South Portland defense.
South Portland junior quarterback Nick Mezzanotte rolls out and looks for a receiver.
South Portland senior Jaren Muller bulls in for a second half touchdown.
South Portland senior Hayden Owen finds some running room.
South Portland senior Matthew Stearns breaks a tackle.
Recent South Portland-Sanford results
South Portland 21 @ Sanford 10
Western A quarterfinals
Sanford 33 @ South Portland 32
Sanford 46 @ South Portland 12
@ South Portland 42 Sanford 32
Western A quarterfinals
@ South Portland 33 Sanford 13
Sanford 39 @ South Portland 6
@ Sanford 47 South Portland 20
@ Sanford 10 South Portland 7
@ South Portland 17 Sanford 0
South Portland senior Hayden Owen falls forward for extra yardage during the Red Riots’ 29-25 home win over Sanford Friday night.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.
South Portland 29 Sanford 25
S- 6 6 7 6- 25
SP- 7 0 8 14- 29
SP- Stearns 5 run (Mezzanotte kick)
S- Eldredge 15 run (kick blocked)
S- Michetti 1 run (rush failed)
SP- Muller 2 run (Mezzanotte rush)
S- Michetti 53 run (Hegarty kick)
SP- Muller 3 pass from Mezzanotte (Mezzanotte kick)
S- Wiegand 71 pass from Eldredge (kick failed)
SP- Stearns 6 run (Mezzanotte kick)